The champs are here: Cabbage race, Soto arrive at Nats camp

Sports

Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle smashes a cabbage on a sidewalk while teammates cheer as part of a team-building exercise and in recognition of National Cabbage Day during spring training baseball practice Monday, Feb. 17, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — On the day position players reported to camp, the Washington Nationals finally got around to putting up a sign on the ivy-covered wall near the entrance to their spring training facility with a curly “W,” a rendering of the Capitol dome and, most significantly, the proclamation “2019 WORLD CHAMPIONS.”

“Now we are happy to come back,” slugger Juan Soto said, “and show the people we can do it again.”

And two of the reasons the Nationals did what they did last season — and, more significantly, figure repeating is a realistic goal to pursue this season — also showed up Monday: Soto and an enthusiastic cabbage race.

Say what?

Yes, the daily schedule posted in the clubhouse proclaimed this “National Cabbage Day,” alongside a separate piece of paper listing the rosters for two teams of 20 pitchers and catchers each, one captained by Max Scherzer, the other by Stephen Strasburg.

At precisely 9:30 a.m., clubhouse and equipment manager Mike Wallace strode outside carrying a broom and dustbin for the cleanup after the contest that soon followed: Heads of lettuce or red cabbage were passed down two lines of players until the “closer” — Sean Doolittle for Scherzer’s squad, Daniel Hudson for Strasburg’s — slammed the leafy spheres on the sidewalk. As general manager Mike Rizzo looked on with other front-office employees from an terrace overlooking the field, and with pride, then dinner, then $1,000 at stake — per hype man and first base coach Bob Henley — Scherzer’s team went 3-0, to much hooting and hollering and group hugs.

“It’s fun, but that’s what they do for a living — they compete every day and it’s just something to take them off of just the everyday baseball thing. But they’re competing,” manager Dave Martinez said. “And when you’ve got a guy like Max, that loves to win in everything, they’re going to compete. It’s just a lot of fun to watch them loosen up and do those things.”

The tradition was born a year ago, when Henley happened to see that Feb. 17 is, indeed, “National Cabbage Day” (go ahead and Google it).

It carried into the regular season, when players would sometimes celebrate victories by throwing cabbage on the floor, part of a general vibe that pervaded day-to-day life for a team that went from 19-31 to a title with dugout dancing after homers, mid-game hugs, special sunglasses and the strains of the earworm “Baby Shark.”

“Last year, it was funny, because somebody dropped a cabbage, and Bob screamed, ‘Who dropped the cabbage?!’ And the whole team said, ‘We dropped the cabbage!’ That’s pretty impressive,” Martinez said. “So they get it. They understand it. And throughout spring training, we’ll definitely incorporate a lot more things to do, because they definitely enjoy it.”

As much as folks made about Washington’s bonding and chemistry a year ago, they wouldn’t have won without pitching and hitting. And few were as instrumental to the latter as Soto, who really made himself known to a wide audience during the postseason despite only turning 21 during the Fall Classic against the Houston Astros.

Soto, a lefty-batting left fielder, hit .333 with three homers and seven RBIs in the World Series, capping a tremendous October that included producing the go-ahead run in the wild-card game off closer Josh Hader of the Brewers, and homering off such stars as Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, and Gerritt Cole and Justin Verlander of the Astros.

“I mean, I’m going to always remember those moments. They’re going to be there forever, for me and my whole team,” said Soto, who had 34 homers and 110 RBIs in just his second year in the big leagues. “Everything we did, I’m never going to forget. I was on the best team of my life. It was a really good team. The energy we had, it was amazing.”

Who knows what Tuesday — and the first formal full-squad workout of this spring — might bring?

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